Losing Weight the Kaizen Way

If you are obese or overweight, you may have tried several different methods of losing weight, including various diets, or even medications or medical procedures. All of these can be helpful in their own ways and under the right circumstances.

But you may want to consider adding a Japanese philosophy to your potential strategies, and that is the practice of Kaizen.

A person hiking on a trail

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What Is Kaizen?

Kaizen has been variously described as a strategy of continuous improvement, a business philosophy and approach to action. In fact, the Japanese word Kaizen means “change for better.”

What most descriptions of and approaches to Kaizen have in common is the concept of applying small changes on a continuous basis to reach a larger overall goal. You can think of this as a philosophical approach to the adage of “taking it one step at a time.”

According to the Kaizen Institute, Kaizen is the practice of "continuing improvement in personal life, home life, social life, and working life.”

Perhaps most importantly, understanding Kaizen means understanding that “big results come from many small changes accumulated over time,” as the Kaizen Institute notes.

Kaizen Applied to Weight Loss

Both individuals and businesses across all sectors have found ways to apply Kaizen, from productivity to health care to improved workplace culture.

You can apply the principles of Kaizen to your weight-loss efforts, too. First, you must pick a weight-loss goal, and then you can take small steps toward it.

There are so many ways to choose a weight-loss goal. Perhaps you want to base it on body mass index (BMI). BMI is a calculation of your height and weight that is often used to determine if an individual is underweight, of normal weight, overweight or obese.

Or perhaps you want to start with an aim to lose 5-10% of your excess weight, which studies have shown to be very beneficial to your overall health.

BMI is a dated, flawed measure. It does not take into account factors such as body composition, ethnicity, sex, race, and age. 
Even though it is a biased measure, BMI is still widely used in the medical community because it’s an inexpensive and quick way to analyze a person’s potential health status and outcomes.

Small Steps Lead to Big Improvements

It is encouraging to know that you don’t have to lose all your excess weight down to your ideal weight or BMI in order to see meaningful health benefits. As noted above, research has shown that even a small amount of weight loss can result in big health improvements.

This is in line with the Kaizen principle that “big results come from many small changes accumulated over time.”

A landmark study, the Nurses’ Health Study, showed the many benefits of a small change as simple as taking a brisk 30-minute walk every day. In this large study, those who walked briskly or otherwise achieved moderate-intensity exercise for at least 30 minutes every day had a low risk of sudden cardiac death over the course of 26 years.

In other research, scientists have found that losing just 5% to 10% of excess body weight can result in a 20% reduction in triglycerides (a form of fat in the bloodstream that is measured on a routine serum cholesterol panel; when triglycerides are too high, this can result in dangerous conditions like​ pancreatitis and heart disease). Yet another example of small changes adding up in a big way.

Even small changes of just a few pounds can result in lower blood pressure as well. Many who lose enough excess weight can reduce or discontinue blood pressure medications because their blood pressure falls into the normal range just from losing weight.

Achieving Your Goals One Step at a Time

So how do you put this into practice?

Let’s say that you set a goal of losing 10 pounds. (Maybe you want to lose more, but in keeping with Kaizen principles, you set a smaller initial and more achievable goal, and then you can build upon that.) You then need to break that goal down into even smaller objectives—let’s say you are going to aim to lose just two pounds a week for five weeks. Now, that is entirely doable.

But don’t stop there; losing two pounds per week won’t magically happen on its own. What small daily steps are you going to take to lose those two pounds?

First, you may want to get into the habit of weighing yourself every day. (Otherwise, how else will you know whether you are reaching your goal of two pounds per week?) Research shows that people who weigh themselves daily are more likely to lose weight (and more of it) than those who weigh themselves less than daily.

Then you will want to make small, daily changes to your everyday lifestyle. Have a good look at the activities you do and the foods you eat on a daily basis. If you are making some unhealthy lifestyle choices, they can add up over time and so can the weight.

Are you spending most of your day sitting or lying down? If so, you are leading a sedentary lifestyle, and you will need to make changes to move around more throughout the day. Some ways to beat a sedentary lifestyle include taking a daily walk, taking the stairs whenever possible, parking farther away from your destination, doing your own household chores, and walking or cycling to work instead of driving.

You can even apply the principles of Kaizen to break down your goals into mini goals. Let’s say you want to become less sedentary. Make a small, achievable goal of taking the stairs instead of the elevator once a day. That’s your small, daily change that will matter and make a difference in the long run.

Then, the important part: building upon the smaller achievements. Using the example above, let’s say you do, in fact, have a successful week in which you are able to meet your goal of taking the stairs every day. You can now add to that by making another goal of parking farther away from your destination (making sure it is safe to do so), so you must walk a little farther. You add that commitment to your daily stair-climbing.

Next, maybe you add a 10-minute walk every day, with the goal of eventually getting up to 30 minutes every day. You keep adding in small increments until you achieve your goals. And then your smaller goals beget larger ones.

Let’s apply this concept to dietary changes: start by keeping a diary of everything you eat or drink in a single day. Then analyze the entries: do you see sugared beverages like sodas, energy drinks, or high-end coffee drinks on the list? If so, those are easy high-calorie targets to eliminate.

Start with those easy targets and keep going. Step by step, objective by objective, and goal by goal. Suddenly, you will find that you have lost those first 10 pounds by adopting healthy lifestyle habits. And you will have the tools to keep going if you want to, using Kaizen to achieve your overall weight loss goals after all.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Kaizen Institute. What is Kaizen.

  2. Kaizen Institute. Kaizen Institute blog.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About adult BMI.

  4. National Institutes of Health. Benefits of moderate weight loss in people with obesity.

  5. Chiuve SE, Fung TT, Rexrode KM, et al. Adherence to a low-risk, healthy lifestyle and risk of sudden cardiac death among womenJAMA. 2011;306(1):62-69. doi:10.1001/jama.2011.907

  6. Miller M, Stone NJ, Ballantyne C, et al. Triglycerides and cardiovascular disease: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2011;123(20):2292-333. doi:10.1161/CIR.0b013e3182160726

  7. Steinberg DM, Bennett GG, Askew S, Tate DF. Weighing every day matters: daily weighing improves weight loss and adoption of weight control behaviorsJ Acad Nutr Diet. 2015;115(4):511-518. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2014.12.011

By Yasmine S. Ali, MD, MSCI
Yasmine Ali, MD, is board-certified in cardiology. She is an assistant clinical professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and an award-winning physician writer.